Renewable energy is about to overtake coal for the first time in U.S. history, despite Trump's best efforts


While campaigning in 2016, Donald Trump promised he would save the coal industry. And since taking office, he’s done everything in his power to deliver on that promise. He's held rallies in coal country, touting his "Trump digs coal" mantra and wearing a hard hat. He's filled the Environmental Protection Agency with fossil fuel sympathizers, even putting a former coal lobbyist in charge of the agency. He's rolled back nearly 100 environmental regulations put in place by the Obama administration, including several that allow coal plants to pollute more. And yet, despite all of his efforts to prop up the industry, it's dying anyway. In fact, according to the most recent report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States is on track to produce more electricity from renewable energy sources than from coal for the first time in history.

There are multiple factors that have led to renewable energy's dominance over Trump's favored fuel source. One is the unmistakable impact of coronavirus, which has caused the demand for electricity to plummet. With fewer offices and businesses open and almost no major indoor gatherings taking place, the electrical grid has been given a break. Coal plants are typically more expensive to operate than natural gas or renewable alternatives, so they have been the first to get cut.

While the pandemic has certainly accelerated coal's decline, it isn't the full cause of its demise. According to the Department of Energy, the cost of setting up wind farms dropped by 40 percent between 2009 and 2019 while solar costs were cut by 80 percent across the same timeframe. Last year, experts found that solar and wind had become cheaper energy sources than coal. Even among dirty-burning fuels, coal is now a distant second to natural gas, which, as a result of the abundance of fracking, has become considerably cheaper.

As impressive as the renewable energy boom of the last decade has been, the decline of coals has been just as dramatic. In 2010, the US got nearly 50 percent of all its electricity from more than 580 coal plants across the country. Since then, thanks to the ascent of cheaper alternatives, more than 200 coal plants have closed their doors for good, with dozens more planning to do the same. Coal's share of electricity generation has dropped significantly, too, It’s been halved since 2010, sitting at just 23.5 percent in 2019.

That trend is set to continue this year. The EIA report estimates that coal production will drop by 25 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, renewable energy is projected to grow by 11 percent, enough for it to overtake coal in nationwide electricity generation. According to the EIA, electricity companies have turned to renewables more often than any other fuel source when adding new capacity in 2020.

Continuing to ditch coal would represent a significant win for the environment, as coal is by far the dirtiest burning of all the fossil fuels. (And there's no such thing as "clean coal," no matter how much President Trump insists it's real.) Electricity generation is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US, trailing only transportation. The decline of coal over the last decade has already resulted in a 15 percent decline in carbon emissions from electricity over the last decade, with a significant 11 percent decline projected this year by the EIA. There's a chance that coal sees some recovery in 2021 as grid demands presumably increase and the country returns to a life more closely resembling the one prior to the coronavirus pandemic. But the trend is clear: coal is dying, and not even President Trump can save it.